No organization in the NFL does quarterback controversies like the San Francisco 49ers.
“My entire career I’ve had quarterback controversy,” said four-time Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle when asked about the position during a recent interview.
Questions about the position continue to linger over the organization despite reaching a Super Bowl and consecutive NFC championship game appearances.
When the open tampering period of NFL free agency opened Monday morning the 49ers wasted little time adding another quarterback, Sam Darnold.
Darnold’s signing is all about two things: insurance, and competition.
Signing Darnold is a smart move considering Kyle Shanahan has been forced to use at least three quarterbacks during four of his first six seasons with the 49ers.
Last season saw the 49ers go through four quarterbacks. Trey Lance started the season but lasted just five quarters before being lost for the year. Jimmy Garoppolo replaced Lance in the starting lineup, making ten starts before an injury against Miami knocked him out. Brock Purdy then stepped in, and led the 49ers to the NFC championship game before suffering a torn UCL in his throwing elbow just six plays in. Josh Johnson took over and was knocked out of the game with a concussion shortly after halftime.
Lance has undergone a pair of surgeries on his ankle since suffering a fracture and ligament disruption against Seattle in September. He recently began throwing, and all signs point to him being cleared to join the team when on field workouts begin in May.
For Lance, injuries have taken away playing time that was vital to his growth. San Francisco general manager John Lynch discussed this when speaking at the combine in early March.
“He just needs to play. You need to be out there,” said Lynch. “So often in our league injuries stand in the way of a player improving. It’s hard. You just start to conquer things so you can mov on to the next thing and boom there’s a setback.”
Purdy’s timeline to return is much less clear after undergoing what his surgeon, Dr. Keith Meister, deemed as successful surgery on March 10. Purdy is expected to begin a throwing program in approximately three months. The quarterback will be working closely with the 49ers medical staff in Santa Clara throughout the recovery process.
As a result, Darnold is the only quarterback under contract with San Francisco who is fully healthy right now.
Having competition throughout the roster isn’t new for the 49ers.
“Competition’s a great thing,” said Lynch during an interview on the 49ers Talk podcast with Matt Maiocco from the scouting combine. “It brings out the best in everybody. We will always have a competitive environment.”
Prior to Purdy’s injury in Philadelphia and subsequent surgery, it was clear San Francisco he and Lance would be in competition to become the starting quarterback in 2023.
During separate interviews on media row during Super Bowl week, both quarterbacks talked about looking forward to the opportunity to compete.
With Purdy’s timeline to return unclear, Lance’s competition will instead come from Darnold.
Darnold gives the 49ers three young quarterbacks. Two of whom were the third overall in their draft class. The third just missed out on being name Rookie of the Year. The three count for a total combined cap hit of just over $14 million for this season. Peanuts compared to what most teams are paying.
The similarities between Lance and Darnold goes beyond their draft slot. Turn on the film and there are several plays where each show their potential. There are also plenty which show their lack of consistency.
Darnold spent his first five NFL seasons playing for four different head coaches and five separate offensive coordinators. Now he will have the opportunity to try and unlock that potential under one of the top play callers in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Lance will finally have the opportunity to work with Christian McCaffrey. The running back seemed to help unlock San Francisco’s offense following an October trade from Carolina.
Another wrinkle in all of this is the possibility of Purdy returning ahead of schedule. It’s not impossible for Purdy be back on the field in time for most of training camp.
Former 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens underwent the same internal brace procedure Purdy went through in 2020. He was cleared to return just five months later. In this scenario, Purdy would be available around the second week of August.
If all three are healthy, training camp will be a sight to behold.
Considering the age and contracts of Purdy, Lance and Darnold there is nothing holding the 49ers back from rolling the balls out and letting the best man win.
In fact, it should be expected.